This week’s new release slate is absolutely miserable – Tomb Raider, Sherlock Gnomes, I Can Only Imagine, whatever that maybe – so we’re trying something new. You see, your film editor sees a lot of movies at festivals, and tries to keep an eye out for the good ones in theaters and on demand. But there are so many of them, and so many small movies hitting streaming services, that unless something gets a very loud release, I might just miss it. So this week, I’m recommending several festival faves that aren’t new to your streaming subscription services, but are worth watching nonetheless, along with a catalogue Blu-ray that similarly slipped between our fingers. And then, just for the sake of timeliness, one new disc release (from Criterion, no less).
Jules and Delores : Caito Ortiz directs this Brazilian heist movie with a fast style and a sprung sense of humor, and it’s fun to watch (if not terribly memorable). The real find here is co-star Taís Araújo, who absolutely steals the show as Dolores, the impatient wife of protagonist Jules (Paulo Tiefenthaler). Exhaustingly sexy and whip-smart, she’s a real go-getter; the scene where she takes over the sale of the stolen world cup at the story’s center is pip, and by the time she struts out to the closing music, you’re wondering how long it’s going to take some smart studio director to bring her to America and make her a star. She’s better than the movie, but the movie’s not half bad.
ON AMAZON PRIME
Fits and Starts : Wyatt Cenac is terrific in the central role of a struggling novelist who finds himself even less confident following the breakout success of his writer wife (Greta Lee, also wonderful), who encourages him to “play the game a little” by accompanying her to an “artist’s salon” in her publisher’s fancy Connecticut home. Complications ensue, and if we don’t always buy them, the charisma of the performers, the quotable dialogue, and the assorted weird behavior more than carries it. The eccentricity of the supporting characters and the grounded central relationship would seem to be at odds, but writer/director Laura Terruso (Hello, My Name is Doris) carries it off; she’s a real talent, and we’d all benefit from a few more Cenac and Lee vehicles.
The Secret Scripture : Rooney Mara and Vanessa Redgrave are outstanding as the younger and older versions of a woman accused of murdering her newborn in this intelligent, staid, yet moving adaptation of Sebastian Barry’s novel from director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father). The broad strokes aren’t exactly earth-shaking: a love triangle, a forbidden romance, secrets buried and unearthed, etc. But there’s much happening under the surface, and Sheridan’s explorations of trust, war, fear of femininity, and repression in the church bear real fruit. You won’t swallow the final turn for a second, but it’s executed with enough grace and emotion to give this one a pass.
DRIB: Norwegian filmmaker Kristoffer Borgli helms this slyly dead-on satire of the entertainment industry and buzzword-y marketing trends, which dramatizes the (they say!) true story of comedian/performance artist Amir Asgharnejad’s prankish brush with “selling out” by shilling for an energy drink in a meant-to-go-viral marketing campaign. Borgli’s primary M.O. is uncertainty – he keys in on his subject’s love of discomfort, placing him in awkward situations and letting him (and us) squirm, occasionally breaking the wall to remind us that this is all a reenactment, and one with its own questions of performance and deception. And lurking behind that is the low-key question of if it’s all made up, from top to bottom. The tone is tricky as hell, and Borgli doesn’t always nail it. But when he does, it’s a fascinating piece of work.
Orange Sunshine : Good documentaries don’t just tell you about their subjects – they tell you about the world around them, and place them into that context. So William A. Kirkley’s’s account of the rise and destruction of “The Brotherhood of Eternal Love,” a California collective who become the most powerful LSD distributors of the 1960s, isn’t just about them; Kirkley succinctly lays out the dichotomy of their movement, of leftover ’50s values challenged by a “spiritual revolution,” and how they saw their smuggling and dealing not as a business, but as a religious mission. When the ’60s began, they were freaks and outcasts; by the decade’s end, they were a force that local and federal authorities had to team up to take down. So in some ways, their story was the story of the ’60s, and it’s well told here; the archives are impressive, the interviews are entertaining, and the reenactments are convincing. It takes its subjects seriously (but not too seriously), respecting how much they accomplished their initial goal of changing the way people saw the world, one tab at a time.
California Dreams : Director Mike Ott fuses narrative and documentary techniques to craft this portrait of a handful of would-be actors and writers, desperate to make it big yet trapped in mundane, “normal” lives. The scenes are staged, but the people and their emotions are real, and he both creates and captures moments that are touching, tragic, and offhandedly funny, often by merely hanging with his scenes long enough for unexpected truths to reveal themselves. They display an ear for the rhythms of everyday life (or, more often than not, the lack of rhythm); it’s a truthful film, and an empathetic one. Genuinely peculiar, but wildly successful at the very specific thing it’s trying to do.
Shadow World : This indictment of what is now, perhaps too easily, acknowledged as the military-industrial complex from director John Grimonprez is one of those movies that seems to start simply, with a single subject, yet logically and skillfully pushing past to an ever-widening series of targets. And thus an expose of a war profiteering scandal becomes a meticulous and irrefutable indictment of an entire way of seeing the world – and of accordingly doing business, in government, in the military, in the private sector, and in the increasingly blurred areas between them. Via precise cutting and ingenious archival excavation, Grimonprez paints a terrifying portrait of where we are, and the improbability of turning back anytime soon.
ON HBO GO
Solitary: Inside Red Onion State Prison : Guests of the Red Onion State Prison, a supermax facility in Virginia, are (per their warden) “the worst-behaving offenders in the state,” and they’re treated accordingly: they spend 23 hours per day, seven days a week, in an 8×10 cell, all alone. The general din that fills the facility is the sounds of scary people losing their damn minds – and Kristi Jacobson’s thoughtful documentary asks whether such isolation is ultimately beneficial to either these prisoners or the world around them. It’s not an activist documentary; she does not soft-soap the things these men have done, in and out of prison. But she wants to understand how incarceration and claustrophobia have led them to create their own, skewed sense of reality and gravity, and what the literally inescapable hopelessness of their station has wrought. Her film listens to them, not impassively, but not with prejudice; she puts you into their world, and asks how you would make your way through it.
ON BLU-RAY / AMAZON PRIME
Joe : Olive Films recently upgraded this 1970 sleeper hit from director John G. Avildsen, who went on to direct Rocky – a bit of a shock, since Joe is the mathematical opposite of a feel-good movie. A respectable suburban ad man tries to track down his drug-addicted hippie daughter (Susan Sarandon, in her film debut) in the scuzz of NYC with the help of Joe (Peter Boyle, electrifying), whom he meets in the “American Bar and Grill,” where he loudly makes pronouncements like “42% of all liberals are queer!” and “Why work when you can screw, have babies, and get paid for it?” Between the title character, who may as well wear a MAGA hat, and the film’s original tag line (“Keep America Beautiful”), it’s become an oddly timely film, but its politics aren’t simple; it’s pretty cynical, generally, about everyone. This is a blunt, ugly picture – particularly in its closing passages – but it gets the point across. (Also streaming on Prime Video.) (Includes UK trailer.)
Manila in the Claws of Light: The week’s sole genuinely “new release” is a Criterion Collection edition of this 1975 portrait of poverty and despair from Philippine director Lino Brocka. He tells the story of Julio, a kid from the sticks who travels to the big city in search of his missing girl, but Brocka works in a neorealist style that focuses on the bleakness of his options and the day-to-day difficulty of a life in which workers scammed and shorted by their own employers, and how their desperation enables exploitation. (Near the end, Julio stumbles across a “down with capitalism” rally, and by then, the movie’s made the argument pretty well). It’s a melodrama with a noir set-up – and, ultimately, a good noir’s sense of nihilism. (Includes two documentaries, interview, and new introduction by Martin Scorsese.)